Saturday, December 13, 2014

The darker the better

I once held a job at the general post office in the city, a holiday job, my first ever job between the completion of my final year at school and the Christmas holidays. 

Before they set us to sorting letters the bosses asked us to fill out forms and swear allegiance to the queen. We were sworn in as public servants and required to obey codes of confidentiality, integrity and honesty.  We might see things in the mail that we were not meant to see, or that might unsettle us or could be dangerous. We were to report to our superiors anything that looked suspicious and for the rest we were to sort. 

Thousands of envelopes, all shapes and sizes, spat at us from different directions and we sorted them by postcodes.  People did not routinely include their postcode with each address then, so it was for us to learn the area codes of each suburb and sort accordingly.

I dreamed numbers at night in my sleep and my fingers dried out for the spreading of letters.  I was shy.  I did not speak to my fellow workers.  All that allegiance for only two weeks and then came Christmas Eve, my job ended and I walked out to Flinders Street station with my first ever pay packet.  A wad of cash in a rectangular yellow envelope with a typed out pay slip that detailed my hours and status, casual and temporary. 

We lived in Parkdale near the sea.  On that last day I took the train home and walked into the house, which we never locked on the premise there was nothing inside worth stealing and called out to which ever of my sisters or brothers might be at home, but there was no one there.  I went outside to catch the last of the sun.

In those days, as soon as the sun brought with it a hint of heat, I made it my business to spend at least ten minutes almost naked under it.  Ten minutes to begin with, gradually building up the time spent in the sun to prepare my skin for its transformation from the white of winter into the golden glow of the warm months. 

It played on my mind.  If there was ever a day when I could not get outside into the back garden hidden from view or later to a nearby swimming pool then I became anxious.  

I would not be able to appear on the street in summer unless my skin was tanned.  Unlike my older sister whose skin, like our mother’s, held an olive glow, my skin took after my father’s, pale and prone to freckles.  At least if I followed my older sister’s tanning instructions and spent the requisite number of minutes building up each day then I did not burn red but instead turned to copper.  The darker the better.

Every summer the same requirement.  To spend more hours in the sun than was available.  I did not question this need to tan.  I did not challenge the unspoken orthodoxy that demanded my body become a respectable brown before I could expose any of it to public view.  It was a given.  Others joined me in this requirement.  Even as my mother went on about an aunt who spent entire holidays on the beach.
‘Her skin will go wrinkly.  She spends too much time outside.’ 

Even as I could not fathom the right amount of time to spend in the sun, to grow into an ideal brown, not too brown or I might be mistaken for an aboriginal and my skin would wrinkle as much as if I were an eighty year old, I knew I still needed to get to that optimal colour.

And then slip, slop, slap came in, and with it, the fear of skin cancer and they changed all the rules.                     


PhilipH said...

I used to get that awful prickly heat feeling if Mr. Sun played on my body at the open air pool in Purley Way, next to Croydon Airport in the late 40s early 50s.

Fair-skinned people are best advised to get their vitamin D3 from a pill, otherwise they may end up having facial tumours cut out of their nose, forehead or elsewhere. I can assure you it is NOT something you'd enjoy.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have no memories of sun bathing. I suppose I must’ve at least tried it at some time or other but I likely concluded that it was boring as hell and a waste of time and decided I’d get tanned just as easily wandering around with my shirt off. In my mind the summers of my childhood were all glorious, the winters appropriately wintery with proper snow and everything and the seasons fell when they were supposed to fall: it’s still autumn today; winter’s supposed to start in about a week and last until the third week in March; in April there should be showers and in May we can start casting out clouts-with-an-oo. It’s not been like that for ages and I miss the order.

I’m not a big fan of the sun nor is the sun a big fan of mine, me being of the ginger persuasion. I used to burn as a kid—I have clear memories of my skin peeling and calamine lotion being rubbed on the sore spots—but that was more from overexposure than being especially sensitive. Nowadays I find I tan quickly and from minimal exposure. I don’t especially avoid the sun and I never wear sun tan cream; I’m never out in it long enough to worry. My dad loved the son. Not as much as the guy next door who was out in his back garden flat on his front as soon as there was the slightest glimmer in the sky (I exaggerate not—if it started drizzling he’d continue to lie there too) but for Dad the best thing that ever happened was him going on permanent nights; that way he could spend his days on the back lawn and it was up to us kids to make him turn over every now and then. Or someone. I, certainly, never took the job seriously. Let the man roast.

This morning Carrie put up the tree and to keep out of her hair—she likes to do it herself—I decided to have a wee trawl of Facebook to see who I could find from my past. I chanced upon a photo of an old friend and his family and I was shocked by the look of his wife. Georgie is one of those people who only needs to look at a photo of the sun and she starts to turn brown only in the photo I found she’s… bronzed to a crisp. How is she still alive?

My mother had skin cancer. It didn’t kill her. Pneumonia did and we (her kids) were all grateful. Mostly for the right reasons; we didn’t want her to suffer. Life’d been hard enough on her without Death making a meal of her exit. I don’t fret too much, well, at all. As a kid I did as we all did and spent every waking minute out of doors. If I’m going to get it I’ve already got it. But I see no reason to encourage it to make its presence known.

Karen C said...

My husband loved the sun and the outdoors and always said I should 'get some sun on my skin'. However, early childhood experiences of sunburn were vivid memories and I disliked the pain one was expected to go through just to get a 'healthy glow'.
This year he was taken by melanoma.
So invasive that neither he nor I, nor any doctor we saw, ever found the lesion that started it.
There is no treatment. There is no cure.
I shudder with horror now when I hear anyone talking about lying in the sun or thinks a tanned skin makes you look healthy.
We still have a long way to go to change people's thinking.
Karen C